ADEN STEPPED INTO THE throne room, his bare footfalls silent against the plush red carpeting that formed a path directly to his throne. Black wards were woven into that carpet, and for the first time he could feel the full force of the power wafting from them, slithering around his feet. With every step, that power twined higher and higher, around his calves, his thighs, his waist. His stomach, chest and arms.

He breathed deeply, the constant buzzing in his head finally quieting. The power swirled, forming a halo that lifted strands of his hair, as if he’d just stuck his fingers into a light socket.

He experienced a startling moment of clarity. Of…emotion. Suddenly he was Aden, not the cold-hearted vampire king he’d somehow become. He felt. Guilt, joy, remorse, excitement, sorrow…love.

He reached back, extending his hand, needing to touch Victoria, even in so small a way. He knew she was behind him, each of his cells aware of her every move, her every breath. Every second that passed.

A momentary pause, a gasp of surprise. Her fingers tentatively twined with his, meltingly warm and familiar. “Aden?”

Her step faltered, and she stumbled into him. He stopped and wrapped his arm around her to hold her up, loving the way she fit against his side. Like a puzzle piece he’d been missing.

“Your eyes…they’re normal.” Hope bubbled in the undertone of her voice.

He glanced around. Black candelabras lined the front of the concrete bleachers stretching at his sides. Between them were thick marble columns. “I can’t believe this,” he said, shocked that he was really here. “Forget the danger I caused by using the horn. I summoned everyone in here to prove a point, and that point could kill them.”

“I’m too embarrassed to say. I…need to sit down.” He kicked back into motion. When he reached the throne, he eased down, more candles flickering around him, smoke swirling from the tips.

The buzzing in his head started up again. A split second later a grumble sounded, subdued, yet all the more savage and brutal because of that. And just like that, the veil of emotion lifted, leaving him feeling both a biting cold and a sizzling heat, neither of which could surpass his determination to lead his vampires to victory against Vlad.

“I’m so happy, I could cry. How human of me, right? But then, I’m becoming more human by the second, I think. And that’s okay. Yes? That’s good?” A grinning Victoria crouched in front of him, resting her palms on his thighs. “Let’s go back to my bedroom and talk. We’ll…” Slowly her grin faded. “Your eyes.” Her voice was now flat.

He shrugged, unconcerned. “Do I have Chompers inside my head?” The grumbling had tapered off as suddenly as it had begun, but he knew there was something—someone—at the edge of his conscious, waiting, listening…controlling?

If not Chompers, who? Or…what?

A frown as she straightened. “No. He’s with me.”

Aden looked her over. She wore a long black robe, thin straps tying the material on her shoulders. Two tugs, and that robe would drop to the floor, and he could drink from her neck, her chest, even her thighs. Any place he wanted, really.

He gripped the solid gold arms of the throne to ensure his hands behaved. Where were these thoughts coming from? Earlier, he hadn’t been able to decide if he even liked this girl. Now he was imagining undressing her and feasting on her?

“You’re sure about Chompers?” he croaked.

“Completely. I’m warded from neck to ankle just to keep him under control, but I can still hear him.”

A miracle he didn’t ask for proof.

“Let’s talk about this tomorrow, after your medication has worn off,” she said on a sigh. “All right?”

He watched her lips as she spoke. They were red and lush, and he wanted to bite them, too.

Maybe he hadn’t taken enough blood from the human. Wait. Scratch maybe. He hadn’t. Otherwise, his mouth would not be watering. His gums would not be aching, his muscles clenching.

He almost leaped from the throne and threw himself at her. If he didn’t look away, he would throw himself at her. “Stand behind me.” Please.

The demand was harsher than he’d intended, but he didn’t apologize.

Shock rather then affront claimed her delicate features. Then her eyes narrowed, and she pivoted, standing beside him rather than behind him as ordered.

He could still feel the heat of her body, the warmth of her breath trekking over him. Close vicinity of any kind was also a problem, then. But before he could send her away, a female moan echoed, followed by the grunt of a male. Instinctively Aden reached for the daggers strapped to his ankles.

There were no daggers strapped to his ankles.

Didn’t matter. He stood, surveying his throne room. His subjects had yet to enter—he could hear them gathering outside the room, speculating about what he desired. How long would they—

A couple locked in a heated kiss entered through the far left door. The male had his back to Aden, was walking the female toward a column, pressing her against it. Aden saw dark hair in disarray and a T-shirt ripped along the ribs. Saw jeans worn loose and bagging around lean hips. In fact, the only things holding up those jeans were the girl’s legs.

They must not have heard about the meeting.

The female was a blonde Aden hadn’t seen before but somehow recognized. Her eyes were closed, but he knew her irises were hazel. Her fangs chewed at her bottom lip as blood dripped down her chin. Clearly, she had fed before they’d started this.

This. In his throne room. Without his permission.

Aden’s ire rose. And yet, deep, deep inside, he was also amused. Maybe even a bit envious.

Victoria must have only just realized what was happening, because she gasped. Aden didn’t need to turn around to know her cheeks were flushed a pretty pink. The heat blasting off her had intensified, wrapping around him like an invisible chain.

He waited until the pair finished and the boy was zipping up his pants, the girl straightening her robe. A robe very much like Victoria’s. Long, dark and easily removable. Don’t go there. The couple was lucky the others hadn’t ceased their debate outside the doors.

Aden cleared his throat as he sat back down.

The boy wheeled around, and the first thing Aden noticed were the perfect punctures in his neck, set in the eyes of the snake tattooed there, both still seeping with bright crimson nectar.

His mouth watered again. Was he drooling?

Seeing him, the girl gasped in horror and dropped to her knees, her head bowed. “Your majesty. I’m so sorry. I should not have entered without your express permission. I will shear my hair, rip my skin to ribbons and throw myself over a cliff. Just say the word. I would never have intentionally offended you.”

He must have stiffened or made ready to rise, because Victoria settled her hand on his shoulder and held him down. He could have brushed her aside but didn’t. He liked the weight there, slight though it was. Liked knowing he had only to grab her wrist and tug and she would be in his lap. Her neck, close. Her blood, in his mouth.

Deep breath in, deep breath out. Again. Again. The bloodlust faded, but only slightly. Slightly, but enough.

Aden studied a face he’d seen every day for months. Rough, scarred in a few places. “Seth. What are you doing here?”

Seth flashed an unrepentant smile. “Came looking for you. Dan’s worried. Everyone’s worried.”

Emotions came back in a flood, guilt the front-runner, but each evaporated in the blink of an eye. “How did you find me?”

“Shannon. He followed your friend Riley, who snuck into your room to grab some of your crap.”

Shannon lived at the D and M, had been his roommate, and was one of the good guys. He also had tracking skills Aden hadn’t known about.

“Gotta admit, though, I didn’t expect this.” Seth waved his hand across the gothicly designed room. “I mean vampires? Can you say incredible?”

Aden’s attention returned to the girl, who was still kneeling, her body quaking as she silently cried. “Enough. You had permission to be here. I summoned every one for a meeting. Now rise and take a seat.”

“Thank you. Thank you so much, majesty.” She straightened, her gaze never finding the courage to meet his, and backtracked to obey.

Part of him took great satisfaction in that. The other part of him was distressed. “Have you been claimed as a blood-slave?” he asked Seth.

“No, way! I’m no one’s slave.” Seth flicked an invisible piece of lint off his shoulder. “Did someone try to claim me, though? Yeah. Some dude. Until I mentioned how tight you and I are, and he couldn’t get away from me fast enough. Had the opposite affect on the girls. It’s been open season on my body, baby.”

Tight? Once upon a time, Seth had wanted to hack him to pieces and nail those pieces to the ranch walls.

“No wonder you kept this place a secret. You got all the tail you could want—and more.”

“How long have you been here?” Victoria asked, her voice as sharp as one of the daggers Aden had wanted. “How many times have you been bitten?”

Dark eyes swung to her. And stayed. And fell over her, taking all of her in. Aden stiffened and forced himself to hold on to the armrests before he did something he’d regret. Namely, rip out his friend’s eyeballs.

Hinges creaked as a door was opened. Footsteps sounded. Multiple pairs. No conversation, however. That had ended. Vampires and blood-slaves came into view, each finally taking their places on the tiers, as ordered.

Seth looked back at them, waved with enthusiasm, then returned his attention to Aden. “I haven’t been here long,” he answered. “And I’ve been bitten a lot.”